Jul 13, 2023

The Enduring Innovation and Magic of Disney

John Hurley photo

by John Hurley

Posted on Jul 13, 2023

‘Once Upon a Time’, ‘Be Our Guest’, and ‘Pixie Dust’ all evoke the magic of Disney storytelling – and, as a former ‘cast member’, the principles of Disney entertainment excellence and the value of maintaining iconic status remain embedded for me in how business and brand experience endure globally.

As one of the most prolific and best-known brands on the planet, significantly, Disney boasts enduring commercial success and cross-generational appeal unlike any of its competitors.

From its launch in 1923 to the present day, this industry-leading name in entertainment has led the way in terms of immediately recognizable visual identity, innovation, storytelling, and consumer engagement, imprinting its values into the hearts and minds of all types of families from every corner of the globe. And it’s as relevant and fresh today as it ever was!

Here, we take a deep dive into Disney as a brand, both in an online and offline context, based on historical milestones as well as the personal insight I’ve gained during my time with the company at headquarters on the 'Lot' (studio) in Burbank, California.

About Disney

Disney is a longstanding entertainment brand with its roots firmly planted in animation from the mind of founder Walt Disney.

Dedicated to creating happiness by providing the best in entertainment for people of all ages, no matter where they may be in the world, the brand excels at making magical memories for the visitors of its various Theme Parks and beyond. It’s these core values of family entertainment that have enriched the brand with power to thrive decade after decade, generation after generation.

Founded by Walt Disney in 1923, Disney began its life as a cartoon and animation studio, developing iconic characters that appealed to children and adults alike – many of which are still revered by families today.

In the years that followed, the company would gain critical acclaim with beloved 'core'” characters including Pluto, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, followed later by the release of its first feature-length film, Alice in Wonderland, and so the legacy began.

Over the years, Disney’s popularity was propelled to dizzying heights with a flurry of animated shorts, television series, and epic movies: an entertainment colossus was born and embedded further with 'appointment to view' Sunday night family television as part of the ABC Television network to brands within a family of brands that includes ESPN and the recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox which was sealed in March 2019 at $71bn.

To remain relevant and offer its ever-growing fan base a meaningful multi-dimensional experience, Disney has, over the years, seamlessly evolved with the times, expanding its empire into the world of TV broadcasting, cutting-edge theme parks, collectibles, digital media, sports, retail, cruise ships, education and beyond, based around a synergy model founded in world class entertainment.

Here is a small selection of Disney facts to broaden your insight into the brand:

  • Disney operates more than 223 official stores in North America alone. (Source: Disney News US)
  • Disney employs in excess of 195,000 people, or ‘Cast Members’, worldwide. (Source: Disney News US)
  • Disney UK’s Facebook following stands at over 50 million, and counting. (Source: Disney UK’s official Facebook page)

Evolution of the Disney Brand

Disney has its origins in animation, serving as the acorn from which an innovative multichannel leader in entertainment developed.

However, over the years, the Disney brand has evolved with the landscape around it, to provide families worldwide with memorable, meaningful, and cutting-edge experiences, while maintaining its core values from past to present.

From the success of Mickey Mouse, the cartoon character that helped to put Disney on the map, Disney diversified its portfolio, with a house of brands, moving from animation into the world of blockbuster motion pictures, creating timeless classics including Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, and Beauty and The Beast, among many others in the years that followed.

To shift with the times and broaden the offering in line with Walt Disney’s vision of 'The Happiest Place on Earth', he founded and opened up its first Disneyland theme park in California, offering its family-led fan base a taste of the Great American Adventure and delivering a whole new level of interaction, thrill, and memory-making moments.

Driven by the success of its original parks in California and Orlando, Florida, Disney expanded internationally, opening up cutting-edge experiences at iconic landmarks in Japan, Europe, and China.

Through strategic licensing and development agreements, Disney has seen a sensational level of growth over the decades, introducing additional layers of depth to the ‘guest experience’, launching dedicated television channels in addition to a host of immersive digital initiatives that take the audience into a unique world, extending far beyond films, parks and collectibles.

The strategy of brand engagement across generations is brought to life with rich storytelling from the cradle when infants learn with fantasy characters that evolve into collectibles, box sets, apparel, and home décor. This forms the evolution of a world-leading company dedicated to storytelling, creative play, and (critically) shared adult-child experiences. Thus, the magic is born.

These promotional images demonstrate the magic of the Disney brand. Source: Disney digital channels

The Principles of Disney’s Brand Strategy Extended

Disney extends the brand carefully into relevant co-branding environments where it is commercially relevant for scale, while remaining authentic to storytelling brand values.  The corporate alliance (not called sponsorship around tradition 'badging' precedents) carefully guards the role of brand, with peer global brands such as of Coca-Cola, General Motors, Nestlé, and McDonald’s all forming part of Disney’s extensive product and consumer insight which leads to innovation and memory-making globally.

These rights management deals crucially have marketing budgets over multi-year agreements to keep the focus on multichannel marketing and minimum spending from partners.

This dedicated, exclusive category alliance shapes, at its core, how the brand sees itself, its customers and the market through strategic planning, digital behaviors and insights, extensive research, and a passion for understanding its consumer base on a deep, personal level.

To create an experience that is authentic and consistent, immersing both its customers and its valued cast members into the brand, Disney has developed a unique terminology that puts an emphasis on superior storytelling.

In all communications, from its stores and parks to its digital experiences and social media channels, the brand calls its customers ‘guests’, and its staff ‘cast members’. This sets up a unique mindset between an authentic welcome and quality control.

Moreover, Disney uses the idiom of ‘front’ and ‘backstage’ in reference to the front-of-house and back-of-house operations and interactions. This further enhances the storytelling experience and cast member mindset, hooking the guest into the adventure, providing exceptional guest satisfaction and increasing purchase opportunity as a result.

This approach is best delivered in the parks environment, where storytelling is supreme. For example, live concerts, the ‘Disney Cruise Line’ voyages or ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ are brought to life for multi-generational experiences as well as post-show merchandizing while visiting ‘on-property’.

Here is a summary of Disney’s primary brand principles – the very ideals that have driven its success and innovation during each of its many phases:

  • Focuses on creating memories to build and maintain lifelong customer loyalty built around anchor characters and theme park storytelling excellence. Campaigning continues based on loyalty taglines such as 'Remember the Magic'.
  • Targeting audience segments with a multichannel strategy, something that is cemented by DisneyLife, the brand’s online subscription service that bridges the gap between its online and offline offerings and activities.
  • Establishing theme parks, stores, and physical experiences as global-leading destination brands and the anticipation of a visit to the shared memories around the customer lifecycle and shared experience management.
  • Putting an emphasis on masterful brand storytelling that resonates, inspires, and transcends medium, channel, platform, and location.

It is this consistency, authenticity, inspirational messaging and experiential cohesion that makes Disney not only unique, but a longstanding force in the entertainment world that is trusted from generation to generation.

" We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. "
- Walt Disney

Brand Partners and Development, and the Role of Creative

In-house creative is developed and managed by Disney Imagineering, headquartered at Burbank, California but with teams based all over the world. This team of Imagineers ensures that experiences and innovation are reflected in local needs also.

An example of this is the evolution of the theme park name from Euro Disney into Disneyland Paris, as the destination value and understanding of itinerary, party size, and budget to the theme park was more deeply understood.

A key component in Disney’s brand strategy is its ability to forge valuable global and national partnerships that drive the brand forward, while developing (and preserving) an image that continues to resonate with its target audience, and localizing the guest experience around traditional packaged goods including food and beverage to meet all hospitality expectations.

Without such insight and Disney Synergy – the ability to extend a brand or creative asset across divisions or geographies – these partnership-based activities would be seen as overly 'American'. Animation characters from Mulan to Ratatouille demonstrate the power of animation and global storytelling to brand-build and connect with hearts and minds, with heroes and heroines from a non-American playbook.

Through Disney Synergy, growth and success are maximized across all areas of the business as well as non-franchises. Synergy is more than a mindset, but an organizational process which makes sure that brand access is optimal at all stages of the consumer journey. Its online offerings extend the value of a film, for instance, post-release, with social media as well dedicated content developed to enhance the storytelling adventure through DisneyLife well after a movie opening weekend.

Disney also has launched an ambitious streaming service, called Disney+. It includes content from the Disney flagship brand as well as Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic. With developments like this, there is no sign of the brand slowing down.

Iconic Brand Image

Disney has always worked hard to maintain, develop, and indeed preserve its iconic brand image.

Intellectual property rights and trademarks are managed and monitored closely for integrity and consistency. They're continually examined to measure success for both traditional as well as more contemporary forms of digital storytelling. Imitations and infringements are challenged and removed consistently.

All new parks, adventures, digital assets, and experiences are developed, launched, and published in accordance with Disney’s stringent brand guidelines, which are geared towards maintaining the brand’s core mission while maintaining its global integrity.

For example, Disney cruises are casino-free because gambling would be inconsistent with the Disney brand and a unique selling proposition for the cruise line is to develop its own island adventure, to distinguish it from other cruise lines with an inspiring mix of new and traditional characters for guests to interact with.

The brand’s image demonstrates its dedication to being unique, embracing the digital age, protecting children on-property and online, and maintaining family values. Through licensing as well as flawless brand management, Disney has been able to evolve while staying true to tradition. This is true business leadership, permeating from the CEO to a cast member in any location around the world. 

Minnie Mouse and Mickey Mouse balloons. Source: https://pixabay.com/en/disney-balloons-minnie-mouse-680246/

Disney’s Key Marketing Channels

To offer greater insight into Disney's omni-channel marketing approach, here is a glance at its main promotional channels.


The home of Disney’s online presence, its interactive, user-friendly website facilitates the gathering of information, the consumption of brand news, the buying of collectibles, the booking of adventures and the navigation of its internal portal, DisneyLife.


This engagement app and portal uses a subscription model to engage ‘guests’ on a deeper level, offering a seamless user experience (UX) while empowering the brand to capture relentless consumer data or insights that drive the company’s evolution, while assisting with TV and film promotion and revenue.

Social Media

Disney’s social media presence is gargantuan and highly-engaged. In fact, Walt Disney World’s Instagram channel has 6.8 million followers alone – and this is just one of the brand’s many social media touchpoints.

Film and Media

Naturally, film and media is still part of the brand’s beating heart. In fact, Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm has earned the business more than its purchase price. Platforms like DisneyLife add an additional layer of interaction and experience with Disney’s current television, film and media offerings, driving its continual success. Film and media audiences that are non-family are served via brands without the Disney name attached i.e. Touchstone or Miramax.


Collectibles and trading events where collectors meet and share series and themed badges, buy recent merchandize, experience storytelling or have a special event with characters or a personalized party. Currently, the brand offers over 300 inspiring in-store experiences worldwide at premier highstreet locations where new and old merchandize themes live side by side.

Parks and Experiences

An extension of the brands longstanding ability for storytelling, Disney’s Parks and newer experiences like Disney Cruise Line continue to dazzle families the world over. Initiatives like Magic Band also offer guests a seamless customer experience while providing the brand with invaluable data and insights to drive its future success.


Disney is without a doubt one of the world’s great brands. Its unrivalled commitment to consistency, authenticity, and brand values, along with a forward-thinking mindset and boundless vision, have helped it maintain its status as the world’s biggest, best, and most beloved family entertainment entity.

Being a former cast member has given me unique insight, appreciation, and affection for maintaining and investing in brand values consistently and a love of storytelling, well told.

The Disney story is a real masterclass in brand strategy that we can all observe and learn from…

“And they all lived happily ever after. The End!”

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John Hurley photo
John Hurley

John is Global Brand CX Director with the Digital Marketing Institute, linking brand and customer experience for global digital learning capabilities. He has developed strategy, customer experience and transformational brand ideas at clients and agencies. He has worked for British Airways in the UK and US in brand and loyalty, at Disney managing corporate alliances with Coca-Cola and American Express, and as Director of Business Development. At Lucasfilm, he was International Marketing Manager for 'Star Wars: Episode I'. More recently he has worked on payment technologies at Valista and Payzone and for Dublin Airport winning the Routes World Marketing Award.